Dispatch from Tunis

Tunisia’s young democracy in the balance

Eight presidential candidates were asked questions by two journalists in a new format never seen before in Tunisia. The country heads to the polls on Sunday

On September 15, Tunisians will head to the polls to cast their vote in the second free and fair presidential election since the 2011 revolution that saw the ouster of the country’s autocrat, former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. More than seven million Tunisians are eligible to vote this Sunday.

The election was moved forward from November, after the 25 July death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, the country’s first democratically-elected leader, at the age of 92. Within hours of the announcement of Essebsi’s death, the former speaker of parliament was sworn in as interim president and afterwards, Tunisia garnered global praise for its smooth handover of power.

This year’s election is sharply different from previous ones, with new challenges for Tunisia. Unlike in 2014, when the race was broadly split between “secularists” and “Islamists,” today’s Tunisian voter is faced with a fractured secular camp, a large number of “independents” and an evolved Ennahda party touting the label of “Muslim democrats.”

A total of 97 hopefuls fielded candidacies, including 12 women and 73 independents. The High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) validated a final number of 26 candidates, including only two women and largely consisting of already high-profile politicians (several of whom were or still are in government positions). On Sunday, Tunisians will choose from this trimmed-down pool of politicians who claim will write a new chapter in Tunisia’s still-young democratic history.

The election is unprecedented in a number of ways:

A candidate in prison: On August 23, presidential candidate Nabil Karoui was arrested on allegations of corruption and tax evasion, sending shockwaves through Tunisia’s political and media circles. Karoui is a media tycoon and owner of a major private television channel that Nidaa Tounes employed as a podium in 2014. Often dubbed as Tunisia’s answer to Italy’s media mogul-turned-head of government Silvio Berlusconi, Karoui has a base among the country’s marginalized communities. At the time of his arrest, unofficial polling had put him as a front-runner. Once arrested and jailed, Karoui was not allowed interviews with the media. Despite this, ISIE has maintained his status as an active candidate.

Candidates as equals before the media: For 90 minutes on 7 September, eight presidential candidates stood behind podiums answering questions by two seated journalists, an unprecedented format that showed deference to the media figures. Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to questions, which were randomly selected by the journalists. The questions centered on foreign and defense policies as well as public freedoms. The event was the first of three televised presidential debates aired just a few days before the vote. Called “The Road to Carthage: Tunisia Makes its Choice”, the first debate was aired on 11 television channels, nine of them private, and around 20 radio stations across Tunisia. Almost three million viewers watched that first debate, according to the country’s leading pollster.  

A coalition of election monitors: The elections monitor IWatch, a prominent civil society actor in Tunisia, announced a new coalition of 28 local associations spread across the 33 constituencies to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections. The group will work on issues including campaign financing sources, as well as fact-checking. The coalition is monitoring a total of 192 social media pages; observers have been ringing alarm bells on the rise of anonymous pages and accounts that make dangerous accusations against specific candidates. Already, the elections regulator ISIE announced that it has found hundreds of violations during the campaign period. The regulator also admitted its failure to monitor or estimate money spent on sponsored Facebook pages by candidates.

Usually, presidential elections take place following the election of a parliament. Essebsi’s death clearly derailed political parties’ calculations and plans: the tight electoral calendar caught candidates by surprise, hindering them from coherent campaign strategies. Caught up in unexpected circumstances, more than a few candidates have revealed a concerning side of Tunisia’s freedom of political expression, making populist overtures and suggesting a dramatic strengthening of presidential power. None of them have explicitly campaigned on media freedoms.

But amid this rhetoric, it is important to remember that three weeks after the presidential election (i.e. on 6 October), Tunisians will again vote in parliamentary elections, filling 217 seats from a staggering 15,000 lists. Parliament controls many of the country’s most important portfolios, including the government’s budget. And it is critical to remember that both elections are taking place on the backdrop of economic stagnation, after years of austerity and declining living standards—with many Tunisians left feeling resigned or apathetic. It is an open question how many will take to the polls at all.

Amid this crowded election landscape, in a country that officially bans election polling, there is no clear front runner—and no sure way to predict the outcome.